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City Organizers Weigh Future of Chicago’s Fashion Week

Chicago’s fledgling fashion week may be poised for a makeover.

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Chicago’s fledgling fashion week may be poised for a makeover.

This story first appeared in the December 29, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Looking to strengthen its fall fashion production, called Fashion Focus, city organizers are awaiting results of a pro bono study conducted to show how Chicago’s retail and fashion rank in the international fashion area. The results should help determine future plans for Fashion Focus, said Jason Felger, co-chairman of Mayor Richard Daley’s Fashion Advisory Council.

Although the crowds and buzz surrounding Fashion Focus have grown, local and regional buyers have yet to seriously invest in the eight-day event, with little more than a handful of local retailers attending the runway shows at Millennium Park in October. A key question is whether fashion week, which Daley helped subsidize as part of a 2006 city fashion initiative, will remain consumer driven or try to build a stronger industry element. And then there’s the matter of whether Chicago has the pull to draw regional or national buyers and press.

Melissa Gamble, the city’s director of fashion arts and events, who was appointed to the new position as part of the 2006 initiative, said: “Our goal is to give the designers here a venue to showcase their work. We know there is a huge consumer interest and demand and we have to try to grow the buyers aspect.”

Funding issues have prevented a major outreach to buyers, Gamble said. This year, the city budgeted $225,000 for Fashion Focus, with the rest of the production costs covered by sponsorship from Lancôme, Toyota and Midwest spa chain Mario Tricoci.

Nick Cave, a member of the Mayor’s Fashion Council and instructor at the School of the Art Institute, who produced one of the week’s most compelling shows, Allure of Couture, said he will propose that the city concentrate its efforts into one weekend with designers hosting runway shows throughout the day, the larger city-sponsored shows at night and industry seminars and shopping events interspersed between them.

He believes that setup may improve Chicago’s chances of drawing regional or national buyers and intensify the entire experience.

“What hasn’t been working is the momentum,” Cave said. “It needs to be more dynamic.”

Gamble said the city is open to new ideas and format changes. “There’s not a lot that doesn’t go onto the table for next year,” she said.

Gamble said she would like to see more designers take ownership of the event by conducting and funding their own runway shows, with some city assistance.

Fashion Focus raised its profile this year by including more prominent local designers such as Maria Pinto, Michelle Obama’s designer of choice, and inviting Fall Out Boy bassist and designer Pete Wentz (who watched the show alongside then-pregnant wife Ashlee Simpson Wentz) to kick off the festivities.

Select designers were invited to show their work for free at the nightly events, which ranged from Gen Art’s Fresh Faces and an all-student show called Dress Code to Macy’s Designers of Chicago, which featured local designers whose clothing or accessories are sold at Macy’s on State Street or are part of the Chicago Fashion Incubator housed at Macy’s.

The week’s long-term future also may be influenced by whether Chicago succeeds in its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Daley has said that the city’s fashion community was a key aspect to Chicago’s Olympic initiative.

Felger said the results of the study may also help the city glean more sponsors or attract a production company like IMG, which produces New York’s fashion week.

Fashion Focus has “evolved so much in five years,” Felger said. “The city has done its part. It has helped build this and it put in resources. At some point the private sector needs to look and say ‘we want to participate.’”

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